With its multiple storylines spanning multiple centuries and genres, actors playing five roles apiece, themes touching on the nature of love, existence and reincarnation and two-and-a-half hour running time, “Cloud Atlas” is undoubtedly the year’s most ambitious film.
It has a lot going for it- some amazing visuals, a handful of truly touching moments, and impressive versatility from the actors. But ultimately, just way too much of it doesn’t work.
Co-directed by Lana and Andy Wachowski (“The Matrix”) along with Tom Tykwer (“Run Lola Run”), “Cloud Atlas” is an adaptation of a popular, supposedly unfilmable 2004 novel by David Mitchell. The plot is set in six different time periods, each one approximating a different established film genre- there’s not one but two stories of dystopian futures, set in both the 22nd and 24th centuries, plus a 1970s conspiracy thriller, a silly caper with a bunch of elderly people sneaking out of a nursing home, an antebellum slavery drama and even a mid-century same-sex love story.
In between, there’s a series of monologues, delivered over montages accompanied by flowing music, and the speeches delve into the nature of love, existence and reincarnation.
The twist is that the actors- including Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Hugh Grant, and many other recognizable faces- play different characters in different eras, often crossing racial and gender lines in the process. Some of this is impressive- some of the credits that go under photos of characters are legitimately shocking.
But some of the makeup choices are just off- a scene in which Hugh Grant is made up as an old man makes him more resemble the Elephant Man, while Korean actress Doona Bae just plain looks odd playing a white woman, and various white actors aren’t convincing for a second playing Asians in the futuristic scenes.
However, there’s one two-minute scene in which Hanks plays a swaggering Asian gangster, which was so hilarious that I expect to remember it more than anything else in the film.
The other problem is that many of the segments are duds, and the story jumps around so much that we forget about certain characters for long stretches. The segment furthest in the future features Hanks as a sort of 24th-century mountain man, forever haunted by a devil-on-his-shoulder played by Weaving, who’s costumed like a member of the Insane Clown Posse.
The trailer for “Cloud Atlas,” which came out a few months ago, was probably the best one of the year. More than five minutes long, it focused on the film’s strengths- those visuals, and some of the particularly profound parts of the monologues- but on none of the weaknesses. “Cloud Atlas” certainly deserves credit for its towering ambition, but it can’t quite reach the heights for which it aims.